“Food is part of my culture. Life was surrounded around the kitchen. It was a rite of passage. ”
By Nicole Berrie
Photography by Justin Namont / ra-haus
“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A FOOD ENTHUSIAST,” SAID ANASTASIA KOUTSIOUKIS while delicately laying out a platter of freshly sliced apples and sheep’s cheese in her sun-drenched kitchen of “Casa Anastasia” overlooking a lush patio tucked away within the Buena Vista neighborhood of Miami. “It’s part of my culture.” That culture, a melange of Northern Greek from her parents and a dash of Turkish from her husband, provided the impetus for Mandolin Aegean Bistro, which has become Miami’s most fashionable–and delicious–restaurant off the beach. “I love traditional flavors but I like to do them in a lighter way,” said the Toronto native while rinsing a bushel of Tuscan kale. “Today we know better. It’s just a part of our life.” We caught up with Koutsioukis at her beautiful home where she dished on everything from why the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet and how being pregnant (she’s expecting a boy in March!) has influenced her philosophy on nutrition.
Many people consider the Mediterranean diet one of the healthiest ways of eating. Is that true?
When you think of Greek now, it’s associate with health. Greek yoghurt, olive oil, but nobody has updated the cuisine. People still think Greek American food as diner or elevated street food. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good gyro or souvlaki once in a while. But the truth is, now that people are much more conscious about what they’re eating, there’s nothing better than the Mediterranean diet.
How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to food?
Food is a big part of my upbringing and life was surrounded around the kitchen. It was a rite of passage. By the time I could walk and talk, my mom would put me on the counter and that’s how we shared stories.
Do you have a favorite childhood dish that your parents would make?
For my grandmother, it was pita. She also makes her own phyllo. She makes the dough so thin. If I try to make it, it rips on me all the time. It’s mainly savory. This is where I got my love of gardening, when we spent summers with my grandma. We didn’t buy produce for the entire summer. It could be leeks, eggplant, squash, my favorite was the melody of three different kinds of pepper with onions and a ton of feta cheese and she would use that as a filling with the phyllo. Northern Greeks are known for heartier dishes, because it’s a colder climate. They had to sustain themselves, so there was a lot of pickling and pitas, and stews were more typical. For me when I go back home, a lamb stew with spinach onions and rice that my mom would make is delicious. In summer time, my grandmother would make okra and chicken in the oven with potatoes and a tomato base and that was really delicious as well. You don’t traditionally think those to be Greek dishes.
Running a restaurant, how often do you cook at home?
We try to cook at home three times a week. We have to for variety. Sometimes there’s nothing like a simple home cooked meal.
Do you have a go-to recipe?
We use the grill all the time here. We go to the fish market and I’ll do some sort of kabob and add some vegetables to it and there’s always a salad. I grew up that way. I could not sit down and have a meal if there wasn’t a salad. Being Greek, there was always a vegetable component like a cut vegetable village salad. So for me, if there isn’t a vegetable next to the protein, I don’t think I would be able to properly eat. I would feel a void.
That said, to begin your day, what does your breakfast look like?
I start with some sort of multigrain toast with ½ an avocado with sea salt. I’ve been really digging using a chipotle pepper on top, sprinkled on top. It’s so yummy. Or I’ll do a smoothie. And when I’m really hungry, I could eat eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the restaurant, we’re working with an urban farm that have their own farmed eggs so when we can we get those. My favorite thing is to make eggs with stewed tomatoes and feta cheese. It’s so good. That’s my go to.
We noticed all the beautiful spices you keep in your kitchen, what are they?
When we were in Turkey, the spice market in the Grand Bazaar was a foodie dream. We picked up Turkish wild oregano from Bodrum, which is in the southern part of Turkey. I sometimes sprinkle it on potatoes. It’s so fragrant. It’s great with any meat dish or vegetables and fish, it gives it a perfumey feel to it. Of course Maldon Salts. We also have a version of Aleppo pepper. In Turkey, there are all different kinds of pepper. I like spice pretty much on everything. I water it down with yoghurt and I marinate my chicken with yoghurt and Aleppo pepper. Sometimes I add smokey paprika to cut it.
What do you cook when you entertain?
I’ll do a variety of salads and we’ll do something on the grill. It’s fun because it allows us to share tasks. Ahmet is great on the grill and I’ll do all the marinades. We love to do it rustic style. We get a big cutting board, put all of our grill on top, chop it up and have a variety of salads. There’s bean salads, a lentil salad or a quinoa with tomato and feta and kalamata olives.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I don’t want to eat heavy anymore but I still like to indulge but in good things like artisanal cheese. You can digest sheep cheese better. It’s cleaner. I like the tang of sheep’s or goat’s milk. However, if you put a burrata or a milky straciatella in front of me, I will lick the plate.
What do you always keep in your pantry?
My weekly shopping looks pretty much the same. Red wine vinegar and Greek olive oil because it’s so rich. I love when you can taste the olive and it’s thick like gasoline. It’s great whenever you’re doing a salad or a tomato based dish. It gives it that extra kick. And I always have lemons always for everything. I recently rediscovered shallots. I never was really a shallot person and lately I’ve been using them a lot. They’re a nice milder version like a cross between onion and garlic.
What is one must-have in your fridge?
You have to have good quality feta. I always say you can always make a meal, if you have eggs, tomatoes and feta. Cow’s milk is going to be a more mild but the sheep’s milk is the real way to go. It has to be aged barrel feta.
Has your palette changed since being pregnant?
I crave more fruit. I’ve never been a big fruit person. Everything that’s refreshing. Pineapple and mango. I could eat a mango and it would be the most orgasmic thing I’ve ever tried.
Has life as a mommy-to-be influenced your view on health?
After I got pregnant, I’m even more conscious of what I put in my body. I’ve had a really beautiful experience so far. I feel so much more connected. We’re just more conscious of what we’re putting into our bodies. I said to Ahmet last night, it’s funny we’ve become a nation of food-obsessed people. This should just be a way of life.
Do you feel more people are catching on to that way of life?
There’s certainly a shift. We’re all looking for something more. Whether it’s in our spaces, relationships or in our businesses, we’re really searching for authenticity.
FOR ANASTASIA’S GREEN APPLE, CLICK HERE